Watching the Catholic Church struggle to refute the claims in Dan Brown's bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code has not been without a certain irony. This is an institution, after all, that only in the late 20th century acknowledged Galileo may actually have had a point. The liberties that Brown took with the Grail legend are nothing compared to the tide of misinformation that has spewed from The Vatican over the course of history. (Shall we speculate upon how Dan Brown would have fared under the Inquisition?)
Yet, despite the many questionable premises in The Da Vinci Code, one of its central assertions — that Mary Magdalene wasn't a prostitute at all and was in fact quite close to Jesus Christ — has been getting particular traction lately because it's verifiably true.
Recent years have seen an explosion in the number of books about the woman long portrayed in Christian tradition as a repentant whore out of whom Jesus cast seven devils. It's an output that began trickling forth as far back as 1969, when the Catholic Church officially acknowledged that the whole business about Magdalene being a prostitute was essentially a load of bull: a story with no basis is scripture or Biblical history, invented out of whole cloth by Pope Gregory in 591 A.D. when he confused her in a sermon, some say deliberately, with Lazarus' sister Mary, an actual prostitute.
Since the publication of The Da Vinci Code, however — which turns on the hotly debated notion that Mary Magdalene was not only not a tramp but was in fact an Apostle, Mrs. Jesus H. Christ, and first Mom to a 2,000-year-old royal bloodline that exists to this day — that trickle has turned into a deluge. More than 100 books have been churned out in the three years since Brown's novel landed on shelves and the global public consciousness.
But there seems to be more at work here than just setting the record straight on an interesting historical figure. Rarely has religion been as prominent in the national media spotlight as it is today, and Magdalene's story is like a potluck of thorny, unresolved issues facing Christianity right now, including the role of women in the church and the place of human sexuality, both outside of the church and within it (sometimes literally).
According to a growing chorus, though, the heightened interest in Mary Magdalene also points to an increasing, society-wide yearning for the feminine aspect of the Divine, also known as the sacred feminine.
Carolyn Rivers is the founder and director of the Sophia Institute at the Phoebe Pember House at 301 East Bay St. The Institute takes its name from the Sophia of the Gnostic tradition, in which she's considered the female counterpart to Christ ("Sophia" is also Greek for "wisdom"). Here, Rivers organizes regular seminars, retreats, and an ecumenical series year-round, all geared toward helping individuals restore the sacred feminine to their own inner selves and, ultimately, society at large.
"We see this as a time when the feminine is at last coming into balance," Rivers says. "We want to create a more integrative, balanced way of seeing things, a new wisdom-based mindset. We honor both feminine and masculine centers in our heart and psyche and soul. In our retreats, we hone the gifts we find in those places and bring them into our ordinary lives. We're not saying that the sacred feminine should be dominant," she insists. "It's about calling women to step into their own fullness and for men to honor the feminine within them."
This weekend, the Institute is hosting its third convocation of Mosaics of Mary, a weekend dedicated to exploring the legends, mythology, and art celebrating Mary Magdalene. Thursday evening (6-8 p.m.) starts with an art exhibit and reception in the facility's studio next door, where local and international artists including Duke Hagerty, Carol McGill, Lee Lawson, Bea Aaronson, Elayna Shakur, Beki Crowell, and Sofia Christine will present their takes on the iconic figure. The rest of the weekend features lectures and a retreat led by international scholars, authors, and artists, among them Margaret Starbird, Sue Monk Kidd, Terry Helwig, and Paula Reeves.
The sacred feminine was an intrinsic part of the earliest Christian tradition, according to Rivers and many others, until it began to be selectively purged, first by Plato in the third century B.C., then later by church leaders like Pope Gregory. These leaders, some scholars and theologians maintain, wished to assert a stronger patriarchal influence within the church and conspired to suppress the evidence for an intimate partnership between Jesus and Mary Magdalene — and therefore the true, male-female nature of Christianity — by engaging in wholesale historical revisionism.
Advocates of this perspective invoke the Gnostic Gospels, a collection of writings unearthed in Upper Egypt between 1890 and 1945 and dated to the same period the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written. These writings, taken together, present new and sometimes wildly divergent first-person accounts of the life and words of Jesus Christ and his Apostles.
"The Gnostic Gospels include texts that include a Gospel of Mary Magdalene, a Gospel of Philip, a Gospel of Thomas," Rivers observes. "They celebrate the sacred feminine and recognize a father-mother God. And those Gospels honor Mary Magdalene as a teacher and a disciple of Jesus, as a woman who was deeply spiritual."
Margaret Starbird, the weekend's keynote speaker, takes that view even further. Starbird is the author of several books about the sacred feminine in the Christian tradition, including Mary Magdalene, Bride in Exile, The Feminine Face of Christianity, Magdalene's Lost Legacy, and The Woman with the Alabaster Jar, which has been published in 16 languages. Starbird's books even get a nod from Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code.
Starbird notes that in the early years of Christianity, church leaders compiled what we know today as the Bible from many disparate sources, pronouncing anything they didn't cherry pick — which would include the Gnostic Gospels and their ilk — as heretical. Starbird, however, begs to differ.
"The first Christian heresy was the denial of the Bride," she says. "What I do is talk about how we lost her, and what a tragedy it's been for Western civilization. The story of Jesus is not about a mother and son. It's about a husband and wife. But this idea was scuttled by the church fathers. We raised a celibate God, stripped of his feminine counterpart, his divine complement. And the result is that all of history since has been dominated by logic and power and masculine-oriented attributes instead of also having those of intuition, dream, and vision, of connecting with the earth and the body and a kinship with all that lives."
Those attributes, Starbird says, come from the feminine aspects of all our natures. "People need to become conscious of our loss, of feminine ways of thinking and being and relating to one another. Then we can begin to recoup it," she says. "There are spiritual centers like the Sophia Institute all around the country talking about these issues, teaching both men and women about this."
Here in Charleston, such ideas clearly have resonance. Rivers says the previous two Mosaics of Mary weekends have hosted some 1,800 people from 44 states, and this weekend's retreat of workshops is long sold out, though Thursday night's exhibit and reception remains open, as is Starbird's Friday night presentation at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church on Anson Street (7-8:30 p.m.).
"At least the story is out there now, that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute," Starbird observes. "Interest in this has exploded in past 10 or 15 years. I don't think anyone would have read my book 10 years ago without the fact of the Roman Catholic church imploding on the sex abuse scandal — and now, suddenly, Dan Brown's book shows up, and people are saying to themselves, 'I wonder what else they've forgotten to tell us.' The genie is out of the bottle."